Adam Cooley and Alex Heart are riding New Zealand’s tattoo industry wave with their studio Shop Nine and Three Quarters. Specialising in pop culture, they’re creating their own brand of magic.
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of the tattoo craze sweeping the nation. People of all ages and occupations are getting ‘inked’. The stigma is fading; almost overnight it seems tattoos have become mainstream.
The industry is growing exponentially. Studios are upgrading technology, attracting more creatives and targeting niches to separate themselves from the competition.
Check the stats. New Zealand has one of the world’s highest rates of tattooed people. One in five Kiwis now sport at least one tattoo. A UMR Research poll of over 18 year olds reveals that 19% have been tattooed – rising to 36% for all adults younger than 30.
In the US, annual tattoo spending exceeds $1.65 billion – and that’s not including the laser removal market.
The name of Adam Cooley and Alex Heart’s new tattoo studio on Auckland’s North Shore provides a clue to the particular niche they cater to. Shop Nine and Three Quarters comes from the Harry Potter books and refers to the secret platform that allowed Hogwarts students to travel from the real world into a magical one.
A magical world is exactly what Adam and Alex intended to create with their business, which opened in early May. It specialises in pop culture. At the top of the stairs there really is a secret door bookshelf!
The two business partners navigated very different career pathways before meeting for the first time at the North Shore’s Blue Lotus studio in 2012.
Twenty-eight year old Alex grew up in Milford, excelled in art at school and is the daughter of entrepreneurial parents (Mum distributes hair products; Dad’s an accountant).
She got her first tattoo aged 18 in Melbourne, at a time when female tattoo artists were rare in the industry.
More tattoos followed. Initially she concealed them from her family. Her grandmother was initially horrified when the tattoos came out from hiding on a Gold Coast holiday.
However, today, with the business, gran’s one of her biggest fans. As are her parents.
Alex was quickly hooked on the art, but determined to build a career properly, based around design. She studied graphic design and online marketing.
When Blue Lotus advertised for an apprentice on Facebook, she nervously rocked up with her portfolio and got the job.
Adam, who is 31, also had a love for art and drawing from an early age.
“In my spare time I’d lie on the floor in front of the TV and draw all sorts of things for hours and hours,” he recalls.
Unfortunately Adam didn’t get the creative support he wanted at high school and ended up in various customer service roles before being head-hunted by SkyCity.
But despite business training and the corporate ladder beckoning, he felt torn between two worlds.
Adam’s love affair with tattooing had already started; he could see its career potential and began spending Saturdays at Blue Lotus absorbing everything. That led to an apprenticeship, which he completed in 2009.
His parents were a little shocked by his career reboot. Today they’ve accepted the fact that their son is a professional tattoo artist and they’re proud of achievements.
Armageddon – the science fiction and comics convention held each year around the country – has proved to be a major marketing platform for Adam and Alex.
Last year in Auckland alone 65,000 fans rocked up. The previous year the combined shows attracted more than 130,000 people.
The duo hosted the only tattoo “nerdy booth” at the 2015 Auckland Armageddon.
Alex had finished her apprenticeship. The booth would prove to be the genesis and testing ground for Shop Nine and Three Quarters.
Their reputation quickly grew – for the 2017 Auckland event the Herald ranked them among the top five ‘must see’ attractions.
“At Armageddon we both talked about how we loved the environment,” recalls Adam. “It got us thinking about the future. We were still working under the safety net of our tutor, and realised we were both on the same page.”
Adam and Alex got on well. Both agreed that if they were to open their own studio it would be a “nerdy shop”. Better to have one combined shop where they could bounce ideas off each other and pool finances, rather than two separate ones competing.
Pop culture-based material from comic books, movies, anime (a style of Japanese film and television animation) or cartoons is their combined specialty – albeit with individual style and strengths. Adam’s more into realism and black/grey images from comic books; Alex focuses on Disney characters and anime tattoos.
“It’s great because we’re not standing on each other’s toes when it comes to clients’ needs,” explains Alex.
Although they had to deal with the attitudes of some landlords over tattoo studios while searching for suitable premises, things happened quickly once they found the right place.
There was another reason to get the business rolling too – Adam’s nuptials are happening in September, and Alex’s the following February!
In charge of their destiny
With their own studio, Adam and Alex are now not just promoting their own versatility and talents, but their own studio brand. Marketing is based entirely on Facebook, Instagram and word of mouth.
They’ve received backing from their respective parents to help launch the business, and Alex’s Dad has been employed to do the accounts.
The studio is a fun and relaxed place – they’re happy for clients to “hang out” in the waiting area – to catch a movie or utilise the PlayStation while Adam and Alex set up.
Adam explains how tattooing has become as much a science as an artform, with new techniques, new technology and increased emphasis on health and safety and associated medical aspects. The industry now demands a higher level of training and is attracting a different breed of practitioner.
“It’s no longer attracting people who just see it as an easy profession to make some good money, but genuine art school graduates – people trained in digital media, classical painting and all types of artwork.
“They regard tattooing as an exciting media to work in, and are producing incredibly realistic images.”
The pop culture focus of Shop Nine and Three Quarters generates many cool stories.
Adam and Alex say images can hold real meaning for clients. For example, a particular Disney character may evoke strong childhood memories.
Alex recalls one client in the police force who described how her tattoos provided a useful distraction for children during a tense
No matter what super-heroes and characters you identify with – it may be Harry Potter or Star Wars, The Simpsons or Pokemon – rest assured so does Shop Nine and Three Quarters.
It’s the tattoo shop where even nerdy people feel comfortable.
Where clients can see the magic and feel the love behind their tattoos.